Inside Perspective from a Brilliant 8th Grader

by Addie Weaver, Hamilton MS 8th Grader and Special Big Read Participant

The Big Read is comprehension’ s best friend. I am a student at Hamilton Middle School, and curriculum in 9th grade requires everyone reads To Kill a Mockingbird. Anyone who has ever read this book knows that every chapter has many themes or morals. You can make connection to not only what you read on the page, but also things you can infer. I have been to several Big Read events and book discussions. Every time I go I find myself realizing something that I hadn’t thought of, or bringing up points that I didn’t know I was capable of. The Big Read forces me to go beyond the text and think about the big picture that applies right now. Only some books can do that. Only some books can bring middle schoolers, high schoolers, parents, and grandparents together. As an eighth grader, this program allows me to show creativity and deeper thinking that may not have pos! sible in a normal class. The students in my class have been pushed in all areas of thinking. We have used The Big Read to give us background information that could not be found with a google search. The Big Read has forced competition into our thoughts. For example we all want to have a deeper metaphor to show Joel Tanis when he comes to our classroom. All of these things allow us to comprehend this advanced novel better than if we just read the book in class. Because of The Big Read we are learning how to think.


When Your Favorite Book Comes to Life: 5 Things Mary Marshall Tucker Taught Me About To Kill a Mockingbird

By Hope College English Major, Katharyn Jones

Mary Marshall Tucker, a friend of Harper Lee and resident of Monroeville, Alabama, gave her address entitled “Maycomb: My Perspective from Across the Fence” to the Holland community on November 6, 2014. As I look forward to Dr. Wayne Flint’s, another friend of Harper Lee and a decorated scholar, visit to Hope College tonight, I think it is important to reflect on the interesting nuggets of wisdom Mary Marshall Tucker shared with us.

  1. Maycomb, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a pretty accurate depiction of the way Monroeville used to be. The heat, the quaint shops, the courthouse… they are real places memorialized forever in the American classic.
  2. Many of the characters in her book were based off of real people in Harper Lee’s life. Atticus Finch shows many similarities to Lee’s father, Amasa Lee, who was also a lawyer. Lee’s portrayal of Calpurnia seems similar to the woman whom the Lees employed. Harper Lee had a playmate named Truman who seems similar to Dill. Harper Lee seems to embody the advice: write what you know.
  3. Monroeville, Alabama had its own “Arthur (Boo) Radley.” Sonny was a young man who had not left his house for a very long time. Rumors abounded: did his father lock him in the house? Would he kill someone if he left his yard? Children terrified each other with tales of Sonny, but, like Boo Radley, he was just someone who never really left his house.
  4. Segregation hurt people. To Kill a Mockingbird portrays the hurt on a dramatic scale, but even a sweet women like Mary Marshall Tucker could not check books out at the public library in Monroeville until later in the 1960s.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird was real and it could still happen today. In 1986, a Monroeville resident, Walter McMillian, was accused of killing a white woman. He was put of death row without trial for his own “safety.” Even though there were many neighbors could testify he was holding a fish fry at his house, because of the perjured testimony and the withholding of evidence he was denied six years of his life before he was finally freed. If you would like to know more, check out the New York Times article addressing his release: The injustice does not stop because Harper Lee wrote a book about it. It will take members of the community who are vigilant and willing to take a stand against injustice no matter the cost.

I always wondered what it would be like if one of my favorite books came to life. Visiting with Mary Marshall Tucker made me realize that, at least in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, the book was already alive. Life wrote the book. Learning all the little details about To Kill a Mockingbird was both exciting and sobering because it is true, and sometimes the truth hurts. Yet it remains a truth worth telling.

Want to learn more? Come check out Dr. Wayne Flint’s address “Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and Their Enduring Message” at the Hayes Auditorium in the Herrick Library at 7:00pm tonight!

Holland Public 9th Graders Respond with Word Clouds

Freshmen in Honors English at Holland Public High School responded to major themes and ideas in To Kill a Mockingbird by creating unique word clouds. These 9th graders were inspired by the characters in Harper Lee’s book and used adjectives that they thought embodied themes in the work as a whole.

Interacting with the story and responding with art is what the Big Read is all about! Check out the slideshow to see these students’ creative work!

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Steve Penkevich: A Timeless Classic

Personal Reflection and Analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird

By Steve Penkevich

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is an undisputed classic that few will avoid having read in their lifetime, and those few are to be pitied. As I have presentation of the novel coming up this weekend, a discussion group that I am lucky enough to be allowed to lead as part of the The Big Read here in Holland, Michigan, I felt it necessary to revisit this timeless classic (and I figured I’d review it to help collect my thoughts on the subject). The experience was like returning to a childhood home and finding it warm and welcoming and undisturbed from the passage of time, like walking the streets of my old neighborhood and hearing the calls of friends as they rode out with their bikes to greet me, of knowing the mailman by name and knowing where all the best places for hide-and-seek were, the best trees to climb, and feeling safe and secure in a place that is forever a part of yourself. Though some of the mechanics of the novel seemed less astonishing than my first visit more than a decade ago, the power and glory was still there, and I found a renewed love and respect for characters like Atticus, whom I’ve always kept close to heart when wrestling with my own position as a father. Harper Lee created a wonderful work that incorporated a wide range of potent themes, wrapping class systems, gender roles, Southern manners and taboos, and an important moral message of kindness, love and conviction all within a whimsical bildungsroman that no reader who has been graced by its pages will ever forget.

The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Before dipping into the novel itself, I’d like to take a moment to speak about Atticus Finch, one of my favorite characters in all of Literature. Atticus is a pillar of morality, a man of honor, integrity, and most importantly, conviction. He is humble and honest, even admitting to his children that yes, indeed they are poor. In a novel about society, with its tumultuous mess of morals and class, Atticus is like an authorial deus ex machina, being Lee’s method of inserting moralizing and an example of what constitutes a ‘good man’ into the book through character and not authorial asides. I’ve always idolized Atticus and tried to think ‘what would Atticus do?’ when it come to being a father and undertaking difficult moral conundrums (I even named my second cat Catticus Finch). Atticus takes the unpopular position of defending a black man in a rape case when assigned to him despite the town nearly ostracizing him. Atticus does his duty, and does it well, as a man of conviction that believes in doing what is right and honorable regardless of the consequences, living up to his statement that ‘Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what’. In fact, Lee originally intended to name the novel Atticus before deciding it would stifle the broad perspective of Macomb by drawing too much attention to one character. Atticus remains steadfast throughout the novel, sure of himself and fully developed, whereas those around him undergo more a sense of change and development. This is a novel about personal growth and a broader understanding of those around you, and Atticus is the anchor to integrity and morality keeping his children centered in the violent storm of emotions and violence that befalls Maycomb.

When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.

There is a childlike innocence spun through a novel of such weight and seriousness, executed brilliantly by Lee’s choice of Scout as the narrator. We are forever seeing a larger world through the eyes of a young girl still trying to find her place in it while making sense of all the hustle and bustle around her, and this creates an incredible ironic effect where there are large events going on that the reader understands but are delivered nearly through defamiliarization because the narrator cannot fully grasp them¹. The narration allows Lee to balance the coming-of-age hallmarks with the weightier themes, allowing the reader to maintain an innocence from the rape and racism while still able to make sense of the society functioning at large, and retreating from the darker themes into the fun of the children’s comings and goings. What is most impressive is how everything blends together, and the lessons learned in each aspect of their life are applied to all the other elements they come in contact with. The fates of Tom and Boo Radley are emotionally and morally linked in the readers mind, heart and soul.

All the standard bildungsroman motifs that make people love the genre are present in To Kill a Mockingbird, from schoolyard quarrels, to learning your place in society. We see Scout, Jem, and even Dill, gain a greater understanding of the world and their place in it, watch the children come to respect their father for more than just being a good father, see them make dares, terrorize the neighbors in good fun, and even stop a mob before it turns violent. With Scout, particularly, there is an element of gender identity at play that leads into a larger discussion about class and society. Children learn from those around them, and Scout spends much of the novel assessing those around her, perhaps subconsciously looking for a role model for herself. The ideas of what a good southern woman is and should be are imposed upon her throughout the town, such as Ms Dubose who criticizes her manner of dress, or Aunt Alexandra and her attempts to eradicate Scout’s tomboyish behavior, and she learns to dislike Miss Stephanie and her gossipy behavior. Miss Maudie, however, curbs gossip and insults, and puts on the face of a southern lady, but still gets down into the dirt in the garden and behaves in other, more boyish, ways that Scout identifies with. The gender identification becomes a cog in the gear of Southern tradition in manners and class. While the court case is unquestionably controversial due to the racial implications, it is also because it forces people to discuss rape and involves questioning the Word of a woman. It forces up a lot of taboo that the community is uncomfortable in being forced to deal with it, and many inevitably turn a squeamish blind eye when forced to confront the ugly truths at hand. Macomb is a society where everything and everyone has their place, a set identification, and they do not like it being disturbed. Most important to note is the correlation that the characters who are most inclined to uphold societal traditions through self-righteous brow-beatings often exhibit the most rampant racism throughout the novel.

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

There are many ‘mockingbird’ characters in this novel, such as Tom and Boo, but the real mockingbird is, to me at least, the innocence that is lost. The town is forced to see each other for who they really are, to question their beliefs, to grow up with all the racism and bigotry going on around them. Atticus teaches Scout that we cannot know someone until ‘you consider things from his point of view’, and through the novel we see many misjudgements of character based on misunderstanding or characters refusing to see beyond their closed opinions, or even something as simple as Scout and Jem believing the rumors of Boo Radley as a bloodthirsty maniac. ‘People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.’ This applies to many obdurate aspects of society, such as Miss Maudie stating ‘sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of-oh, your father,’ emphasizing the ways that a closed mind is just as dangerous as a violent hand and that even religion can be misused. There is a message of love, of looking into the hearts of others and not just judging them, a message of compassion and open-mindedness working through To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is a message that we all must be reminded of from time to time.

There are a few issues that arose on a re-reading of the novel, having grown myself as a reader since I first encountered this lovely book. While the moral lessons are important and timeless, there is a sense of heavy-handedness to their delivery. Particularly at the end when Sheriff Tate points out the dangers of making a hero of Boo Radley.

taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head.

This statement is quickly followed by Scout mentioning to Atticus that ‘Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’. It seems a bit unnecessary to reiterate the point, especially when Tate’s double use of sin was enough to draw a parallel to the message earlier in the novel that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. This, I admit, is overly nitpicky but brings up a conversation about teaching this novel in schools. This book is, ideally, read at a time of the readers own coming-of-age and the connections they are sure to draw with the characters reinforce the love for the novel. It is also a time in life when you are just beginning to understand the greater worlds of literature, and overtly pointing out themes is more necessary for readers when they haven’t yet learned how to look for them properly. It is books such as this that teach us about books, and usher us into a world of reading between the lines that we hadn’t known was there before. Another quiet complaint I have with the novel that, despite the themes of racism, Calpurnia seems to be a bit of an Uncle Tom character. However, who wouldn’t want to be in service for as great of a man as Atticus, so this too can be overlooked.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel surely deserving of it’s classic status. Though it is not without its flaws, there is a timeless message of love that permeates through the novel. It is also of great importance as a book that young readers can use as a ladder towards higher literature than they had been previously exposed to. Lee has such a fluid prose that makes for excellent storytelling, especially through the coming-of-age narrative of Scout, and has a knack for creating exquisite characters that have left their immortal mark in the halls of Literature as well as the hearts of her readers.

…when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice.

Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.’

Lights, Camera, Action… Read!

Lights, Camera, Action! Read To Kill a Mockingbird!

By Hope College English major, Katharyn Jones

He set the stage.

One week ago I joined the standing room only crowd gathered in Winants Auditorium to hear Hope College’s own, Dr. Fred Johnson, introduce Holland’s Big Read: To Kill a Mockingbird. I must admit I went to the keynote lecture entitled “Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair” out of principle. My thoughts and anticipation were drawn to the impending visit of Harper Lee’s friend and fellow resident of Monroeville, Alabama, later that week (more on my conversations with this dear woman to come!) I was prepared to be bored. (The guy is a history professor, after all!)

I was far from bored.  Dr. Johnson’s talk was like a spotlight piercing my confusion.

Dr. Johnson brought the story the story to life by recounting the historical tensions of the Jim Crow Era. If I were a child growing up in segregated south like Scout, there were laws stating I could not play cards with another child if they were black. The accusation of rape by a white woman of a black man was a death sentence. Lynching was a social event and recreational outing published in newspapers, so that families could watch. Maybe even bring a picnic lunch. Pose and take a picture with the body. (If you want to know more, check out the website Without Sanctuary. It is a catalogue of photographs taken of lynchings.)  Racial tensions were only exasperated by the economic tensions of the Great Depression. Although To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, the book takes place in 1935.This is the scene in which Harper Lee chose to set her masterpiece and cry for innocence. Publishing her fictional status of the status quo was quite a courageous step on Lee’s part. It certainly steps on some toes.

“Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair” was also a call to action.

The former marine’s talk, (once a marine, always a marine), pointed out something that seemed to apply directly to the message of the Holland Big Read. One of the elements of American slavery was to keep slaves from becoming educated, and, more importantly, to learn to read.  The blood spilt in the Civil War temporarily brought a semblance of educational equality, until segregation threatened to tear reading, education and everything they represent away from half of the South’s population again.  As Scout said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Atticus Finch battled for the breath of his neighbors. He fought for their right to really live. The value reading and the freedom it represents is what we celebrate by coming together as one community and reading one book for the Holland Big Read! We are celebrating a book that sparked change and  voiced difficult questions of equality, independence, and understanding what it means to stand in another’s shoes.

So, as you crack open To Kill a Mockingbird this month, remember to set the stage. And remember that Harper Lee’s message means so much more when you consider the historical tensions fueling the events of the book. And join a book discussion! And remember that former-marines-turned-history-professors are actually very engaging speakers!

Looking for Harper Lee

A Summary of Mark Childress’s article, “Looking for Harper Lee”

Mark Childress, an award-winning novelist from the South, always loved To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, he grew up in Monroeville, Alabama and knew friends of Harper Lee. In an article published several years ago, Childress described how her book affected him as a young reader: “The book moved me as no book had ever done. It made me want to learn how to make that kind of magic, to tell that kind of truth.” Harper Lee was one of the reasons he aspired to be a writer of fiction as a young boy. He thought of authors as “invisible wizards who swept me off to far places to work their spell on me. To Kill a Mockingbird was fiction, but it was real. It came from this place where I sat.” He aspired to create this magic on a page by writing from his own life experiences as well. Since Harper Lee had such an impact on his dream, he tried many times to track her down to meet in person. He attempted to contact her and have the chance to see her, but she continued to turn him down and did not want to be interviewed.

After all of his searching and persistence, Childress finally received a letter in the mail from Harper Lee herself. She was kind and encouraging, expressing how great she thought it was that he was pursuing writing. It was then that Childress decided to end his quests to meet Harper Lee in person. He realized that it was her choice to stay private and she already had given him and all of her readers the best gift of all… “a novel to change minds and arouse consciences.” And what a precious gift that is.

Southern Living Magazine
Vol: 32  No: 5 Date: 1997

Dr. Kathryn Schoon-Tanis: Moments of Grace and Courage

Moments of Grace and Courage:

Reflecting on Dr. Fred Johnson’s “Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair”

Dr. Kathryn Schoon-Tanis

It’s easy as a white, educated woman of privilege to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by race relations in our country. Between the beating of Rodney King and the LA race riots (when I was a Hope College student), to the killing of Trayvon Martin, to the killing (and subsequent riots) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems that we haven’t come all that far since the Jim Crow era of the early to mid 20th century in that it seems that we have a different justice system – different rules – when it comes to the lives of young Black men.

Yet, as Dr. Fred Johnson took his audience on a historical journey in order to set the context for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, he reminded us that there have moments of grace and courage along the way, whether a moment of peace and grace in the midst of a storm that Grace Lorch offered Elizabeth Eckford as she took the first steps of integration, or a moment of courage as James Zwerg, a Freedom Rider, faced violence and brutality. And, as Dr. Johnson highlighted, there was a moment of courage as Harper Lee wrote her book about racial injustice in a small, Southern town – a book that has stood the test of time, encouraging and challenging readers of all ages for over five decades.

To understand Lee’s courage, one must understand the circumstances – legal and social – that created a climate for slavery; for Civil War; for intentional, institutionally sanctioned segregation. In order to do this, Dr. Johnson walked his audience from the colonial slave codes, to the laws passed to protect slavery and the brutalization of Black Americans, to the material destruction of the Civil War, to the Reconstruction Amendments that worked to reinstate the status quo of slavery, to questions, like that of Frederick Douglass, that remain current today: “Do you mean to make good the promises of your Constitution?” And, while Dr. Johnson acknowledged that yes, we as a country have come far, there is still much to be done. We are not in a post-racial society in that we still have to make our Constitution a reality that applies to every American citizen. We are in need of an acceptance of our past, and we need to take responsibility for our present. We need to realize, as Harper Lee states, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  Because, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, “My humanity is in need of your humanity.”

Read With Me

 By Hope College English Education major, Laura Van Oss

            Last spring, Professor VanDuinen warned me that she’d be calling on me along with my fellow English Education students to participate in the Big Read come November. The more involved I’ve become with the project, the more excited I’ve become about the opportunity our city has been presented.

The Big Read dares to propose that reading be a communal act. This is how we learned to read. From the very beginning, perhaps at home with Mom or Dad, at school in reading groups and class discussions, reading is something we do together. But many of us, even if we continue to read once we leave the classroom, leave the conversation behind: reading becomes a solitary pursuit. Any reading, I’m about to argue, is incredibly valuable, but I think we miss something when we read alone.

If you think about it, why are we still reading novels anyway, when we have so many faster, shinier forms of entertainment and engagement at our fingertips? In a world that lives online, reading hasn’t gone away.

I believe its because a story on paper is an active and dynamic thing. It is malleable according to the knowledge, perspectives and experiences each reader brings to the words.

Reading is input: witty, tragic, or profound ideas that enter our brains and hopefully stick around for a while. But it’s in conversation that those ideas thrive. They’re considered and argued; they jump from individual to individual and maybe become something entirely new.

So I think we should all jump at this opportunity to read together. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird stay with us because they are universal. But they touch and provoke us all in unique ways.

We now have the chance to share those responses with one another. Old and young, teachers and students, librarians and engineers. We have a common ground in this story and the timeless questions it asks of us.

What a great conversation starter.

Femininity in To Kill a Mockingbird

by Hope College English Education major, Abby LaBarge

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee portrays evident themes of racism, familial love, justice, and compassion.  One of the lesser discussed themes, however, is femininity.  In the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is determined to embrace her tomboy side for a great deal of time as she grows up, fearing any type of femininity.  She seems defiant and set against maturing into a beautiful young woman.  In her mind, boys get to have all of the fun, and girls are destined to wear dresses and do housework forever.  This could be because Scout spends a large portion of her childhood playing and going on adventures with two boys, Jem and Dill.  Together, the kids act out silly scenarios, roll down hills in tires, and make up crazy stories.  Scout seems to believe the fun will end if she lets go of her tomboy side.  Luckily, Scout is able to find some strong female role models, like Calpurnia and Miss Maudie.  She is able to observe them fight for justice, family, and even their own health and safety.  Throughout the novel, it is impressive to see Scout become more comfortable with herself and to understand the femininity and strength can coexist in an individual.


A Modern-Day Atticus Finch

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who fights for justice and mercy on behalf of those who are discriminated against. NPR recently featured Stevenson in an interview and Calvin College will be hosting him this winter for their January Series. The founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose book Just Mercy went on sale this past month, is quite a hero to those he represents in court.

Sound familiar?

It is incredibly encouraging to hear of real-life versions of Atticus Finch. Much like Harper Lee’s beloved character, Stevenson advocates for those who do not have a prominent voice and defends those who face injustice in the courtroom and in the rest of society. He truly lives out the lessons found in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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